Pioneers paving the way

I am still haunted by characters from the past that I encountered several weeks ago and the struggles they encountered in the medical field and in life in general.

Through its You Are There series, the Indiana Historical Society transports visitors back in time to the moment when an important picture was taken. In this case, it was 1939 to the office of Dr. Harvey Middleton in Indianapolis, Indiana. As luck would have it, another doctor was present too, Dr. Henry Hummons. The actors playing both doctors stayed in character, discussing their backgrounds, their struggles, and the society of the times.

It was enlightening.

And heart-rending.

Both were African-American doctors, in a time and a place that did not welcome African-American doctors or African-Americans in general. (I realize as I write that sentence that one could argue this is still the case to a certain extent in certain places.) I was amazed that either man was able to receive a medical education and practice medicine given the discrimination of the times.

Driven by the health woes of his mother at a young age, Dr. Middleton entered medicine, specializing in cardiology. He saved his money and bought a Cardiette machine, which measures the electrical activity of the heart. And he continued to travel to different schools for training to deepen his knowledge.

He sought to alleviate the plight of the African-American community that suffered from a lack of medical care, a poor diet, and little exercise. Dr. Middleton related to me that he was banned from working at an area hospital, but was allowed to volunteer. Volunteer as a doctor to the black patients who were kept in the basement of the hospital. Volunteer as a doctor to the black patients neglected in the hospital without medical care or physicians to care for them. Eventually his perseverance paid off and he found himself on staff at the hospital.

Dr. Hummons was from a slightly earlier time, appearing in Indianapolis a few decades before Dr. Middleton. I had a long chat with Dr. Hummons about the lack of opportunities, the discrimination, the struggle for equality, the plight of the African-American community and health, and the poll tax. The poll tax. My mind wandered to the recent judgments against the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and how it may not be called a poll tax now, but the fight to prevent non-whites from voting really hasn’t changed.

Both doctors were members of the Aesculapian Society, a branch of the National Medical Association formed in Indianapolis around the turn of the 20th century for physicians of African-American descent. It was not long before 1939, when I was visiting with the doctors, that the term colored was removed from behind their names in the national directory of physicians. They were finally recognized as physicians first and foremost.

Thank you, Dr. Middleton and Dr. Hummons, for the struggles you went through without quitting, the ways you improved the health of those neglected and abandoned, and the path you helped forged to make the road of those to come after you a bit smoother.


One thought on “Pioneers paving the way

  1. I totally need to get down there! I want to see the great flood exhibit. I had not heard about this one. Now I have two really go reasons to go!


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